Apollo 8 Astronauts Describe Watching Moon Swallow Stars in New Film

A movie following the journey of Apollo 8, the first trip astronauts took around the moon, shares the feelings the crewmembers experienced as they encountered their destination.

The new film, dubbed "First to the Moon," was released on streaming services YouTube and Google Play earlier this month, after a low-profile premiere last December. In an exclusive clip from the movie, the three Apollo 8 astronauts describe what happened as the spacecraft passed out of reach of communications on Dec. 24, 1968, during a planned orbital mission of the moon.

The small spacecraft went to the far side of the moon, which the astronauts could not see during their entire three days en route to their destination, Apollo 8 Cmdr. Frank Borman explained in the video. "We were upside down and going backwards so that we could fire the rocket to slow us up," he said.

Related: Apollo 11 at 50: A Complete Guide to the Historic Moon Landing Mission

They moved into the darkest part of the moon's shadow, which is called the umbra. It was a darkness that is hard to imagine here on Earth. "There was no earthshine, and there was no sunshine, so consequently, when we looked out the window, all the stars came out," Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 command module pilot, said in the film.

At that moment, crewmember Bill Anders added, the trio could see stars everywhere. There were so many stars that even the familiar constellations were washed out (and the astronauts knew these constellations well, since they used star sightings to help calibrate their spacecraft's navigation system).

"And yet, as I looked over my shoulders," Anders said, "I saw suddenly [that] the stars disappeared. A black hole, and that was the moon. And I must say, at that stage of the game, the hair came up on the back of my neck a little."

Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth and was one of the major milestones in accomplishing the first moon landing. That happened in July 1969 after two other missions practiced docking and lunar descent. The 50th anniversary of the landing, Apollo 11, takes place July 20.

Anders and Borman never returned to the moon. Lovell expected to land on the surface during Apollo 13 in 1970, but the mission was aborted en route after an exploding oxygen tank damaged the service module. Lovell and his crewmates executed a slingshot maneuver around the moon, using the lunar gravity to return safely to Earth. 

Overall, NASA landed astronauts on the moon six times before concluding the Apollo moon program in 1972.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace